The End of the Path
By Scott E. Pond
My car sits in a roadside pull-off three miles behind me, just west of North Conway, New Hampshire.
Cultivated fields and the outskirts of private properties lay at my back, normalcy and civilization crouching naively in the gaping maul of Mother Nature. Ahead of me, the forest awaits, the late morning sun lighting the entrance like a stage. The unpaved, overgrown road beneath my feet winds between the darkened boles, disappearing into the thick vegetation. Shifting my gear absently and taking a deep breath, I plunge into its waiting green embrace.
The promise of cleansing communion and my vivid recollections tug at me like boney, grasping fingers, pulling me along the path past the trailhead, and yet miring me in trepidation. I make my way along the trail, my mind torn between the physical here-and-now and the images of long ago, a juxtaposition of sights and sounds, layered and intermingling. Though I walk in alone, in silence, burdened only by my load, both physical and mental, I am accompanied by the shades of my dear friends. Their laughter and excited chatter echo faintly in my head, their pale forms darting at the periphery of my sight.
Though it has been over twenty years, the path is as I remember it.
Along each side of the forgotten lane, trees recede into the distance, silent sentinels standing witness to the measured passage of the decades. The thick canopy arcs overhead, allowing only the occasional shaft of radiance to slice into the gloom, like the searchlight of an inquisitive god. In the verdant patchwork sea high overhead, I can see scattered glimpses of blue through jagged windows. The eroded and weed-strewn ruts of the road sweep me along the path, a forgotten testament to logging wagons and trucks from decades gone by.
The air, thick with moist earth and redolent with a pervasive green, is noticeably cooler under the shelter of the unmoving guards. Gooseflesh erupts along my arms, forcing me to zip up my jacket. Chirps, squeaks, buzzing, and the rustling of tiny feet escort me along, the denizens of the earth weaving an orchestral symphony of activity and life that washes over me like a fine mist.
Time has become meaningless—unimportant, insignificant—in the court of the ancient Earth Mother. I shuffle along on autopilot, my feet pulling me forward and time slipping by unnoticed. Memories vie for my attention even as my eyes sweep the lush scenery along my path, the past and present overlaying my vision like a reflected image in a window. I pause at a thick birch, putting down my burden and stretching, rubbing my aching arms. My eyes fall upon the overgrown and faded names carved into its trunk at chest height. My fingers trace the ghostly impression of letters even as I recall those same fingers clutching a knife, carving the leathery bark, tracing out the explorers names.
I move on.
My feet trudge along the trail, keeping step with the march of time, both slipping behind me unnoticed. Some indeterminable time later, a faint gurgling brings me out of my reverie. It grows, first accompanying and eventually drowning out the hum of life. The thinning road rounds a curve, running parallel for a time with a creek groaning and engorged with spring runoff.
At the closest approach, the bank drops off abruptly to the angry water below, detritus jumbled at the edge from centuries of seasons. A large outcropping of rock reaches over the brimming turbulence.
I can see a boy in my mind’s eye—it was Johnny! Say his name… he deserves that much—standing there, tossing rocks into the torrent. I can hear his laughter echoing down through the decades; his light taunts goad me to come out on the rock despite my fear of heights. A small smile creases my mouth, unbidden and bittersweet. After a moment I turn my blurring eyes from the rocky projection and continue on my way.
One foot in front of the other as more sand flows through the hourglass.
I come to the end of the trail proper, the way beyond guarded by a fallen workhorse of a forgotten age. There is broken glass and faded, crushed cans scattered about it, no doubt from countless teenage celebrations over the decades. It is a crumpled and rusted hulk of a truck—a Ford or Chevy—most likely from latter part of the 1940’s or early 1950’s if the hint of body style could be used to judge what this dead beast was in life.
I pause, setting aside my burden once again. My heart pounds in my chest, as if keeping tandem with some unheard song, a twinge building in the pit of my stomach. Memory surges forward again, overlaying the present, insistent and immediate. My eyes alight on the front of the truck.
The hood ornament is gone, pried off by eager fingers almost twenty years ago. I can see him still, his young hands at work. Damn it, say his name! His name was Eric! He was your best friend! His damp blond hair stuck to his forehead as he worked the edges, back and forth, until it was finally freed. I see him shove the trophy into his pocket with his other treasures, a smile of triumph on his dimpled face. My face moist, I shake my head roughly and the images dissipate like smoke on the wind.
Where tires had been there are only crumbled chunks of rubber with wild flowers sprouting from the hubs. The windows are gone, small pieces of the shattered remains glittering dully on the ground and across the floor of the cab. A bed of naked rusted wire occupies the space where there had once been seats. The front hood of the truck stands open, the engine compartment empty except for a few sickly weeds, its heart and power stolen long ago. My fingers trace a patch of paint here, a line of chrome there, the dimpled and smashed body raising more questions now than it had when I was thirteen.
I suppress a shiver and force down my rising anxiety. Steeling myself, I pick up my gear and circle around the forgotten hulk to the trail beyond.
I move along, picking my way along the overgrown, narrow trail. Leaves caress my skin like a long lost lover. The logging road and the young forest give way to a more ancient section of growth. The path dwindles to a barely perceptible game trail the further along I go. As I walk, the smell of fresh earth and foliage becomes tinged with the stench of rotting vegetation, the pungent scent of decay moving to overwhelm the fragrance of life.
As the afternoon ticks by, the sounds of life fade as a blanket of oppressive silence is pulled over the forest. The still air, thick with moisture, makes breathing difficult. I pant, trying to move the cloying air in and out of my lungs. A thin sheen of sweat covers my body. My clothes, damp with the humid air and my perspiration, cling to my skin, running off my body like wet paint.
One foot in front of the other, I move through the false twilight afforded by the forest, brushing aside the branches and brush that threaten to stop me. For a long time, I only know the feel of the passing leaves and the rhythmic clomp of my hiking boots.
Time stretches, leaving me lost and adrift in the eddy of its passing.
Abruptly, the trail opens up into a clearing. It snaps me out of my hypnotic trance as if I’d been doused with a cold bucket of water. My heart drops into the pit of my stomach. A cold sweat breaks out on my skin, raising gooseflesh in its wake. I skid suddenly to a halt at the edge, my boot sliding slightly on the damp ground. I slowly look around the clearing, knowing I have arrived and yet somehow surprised to see it.
“… the clearing at the end of the path…”
The phrase leaps unbidden to my mind, a small snippet of doggerel from Stephen King’s fantasy epic, The Dark Tower. In it, the main characters describe heaven and the afterlife as the “clearing at the end of the path,” marking it as the final destination of a long journey. The place where you can rest and meet your friend long lost. A place of hope after long turmoil. A place so unlike what lay before me.
In the center of the clearing stands an ancient tree. The trunk, a full twenty feet in diameter, is covered in a scarred, thick, black bark and iridescent purple moss. It rises menacingly into the air. Its branches extend out high overhead, the green-black leaves completely blocking out the sky. Though the air is still, the branches sway slightly as if caught by an unfelt breeze. The ground for sixty feet around is free of any other growth. The uneven dirt, crisscrossed and punctured with the mighty tree’s roots, is eroded and bare. The ground is clear of any dead leaves as though the hand of God has swept it bare, though I doubt God wants anything to do with this.
At the base of the tree is a lone shelf of rock, its surface worn smooth by time’s tender touch. The top of the man-sized rock is unnaturally flat. Its surface is stained a deep rust color that seems to run off over the sides in streaks and rivulet’s. Designs, faded and worn smooth by the elements, decorate the visible surfaces, their meaning and origin unclear. The roots of the tree push through the compacted dirt at the base of the stone, entwining it with a jumble of writhing tendrils frozen in time.
Near the stone on the left side I can make out a weather stained sneaker.
Nearer to me, I can see a glint of metal from a truck hood ornament, half-buried and forgotten in the loose dirt.
Memories slam my senses, drowning me in their passing. I sway on my feet, grasping for and catching glimpses as they rush by:
Entering the clearing, our shouts and laughter reverberated with our excited astonishment.
Johnny standing on the rock, laughing, while Eric relieves himself on the ancient tree, which sways in the still air.
Movement behind the tree, fear on Johnny’s face, Eric backing away from the tree, toward me.
A blur of green, brown, purple, and black rushing to the rock.
The blur strikes and Johnny is gone, almost too quick to see.
Eric running toward me, his pants still unbuckled, a wet spot in the front.
A man-sized clump of leaves… moving… impossibly moving.
Screams and cries from the blur, cut off abruptly, wetly.
Eric’s look of shock, a blur behind him.
A spray of crimson misting the air and wetting my face.
Turning away and running.
Running, my lungs burning with effort.
I slowly shake my head to clear it, the images fading and receding into the past. The sound of the forest life is hushed here in the clearing, as though it waits with baited breath. The only sounds I can hear are the swaying branches up above and a faint rustling of movement on the far side.
I take a deep breath.
Slowly, I lower the plastic can in my left hand to the ground, never taking my eyes off the clearing. I can hear the liquid sloshing inside, promising release, promising an end. I reach my now-free hand into my pocket and pull out a silver lighter. I trace the engraving on the side with my thumb, the two names in flowing script somehow giving me the strength, somehow connecting me to my past. I can feel them with me, silent spectators. They are with me, supporting me in my time of need, forgiving me for leaving them.
For abandoning them.
I gently place the lighter on the gas can, still never taking my eyes off the clearing. The sounds of movement is getting louder now, the rustling getting closer. On the far side I can make out indistinct movement, as though the leaves are moving. Multiple groups of leaves.
My heart is pounding in my chest like a jackhammer, but I now know it is out of excitement and anticipation, not fear. I roll my shoulders and my head, working out the kinks and muscle aches. Moving my free hand to join the other, I raise the fireman’s axe and grasp it two-handed, twisting and flexing my grip reflexively, like a ball player getting ready for the final pitch. It feels good in my hands, the composite plastic handle and the weight of the blade a physical representation of my resolve.
My guilt is no more. I smile and I can feel them smiling with me.
My friends, lost so long ago, are here with me.
“For you, Johnny. For you, Eric,” I say out loud as I step fully into the clearing.
* * *
Author’s Note: This piece is based on two hikes that I have taken a few dozen times in central New Hampshire over the last few years; I have had the chance to go on each of these since we started class and have been taking observational notes on them based on the instructor’s recommendation. All of the sights and imagery is a composite of what you would see on the hikes—the younger portion of the trail, the creek, the old logging road, and the older section of the forest—as is the large old oak and a stone that could almost look like an alter… from the right angle, with the right light. The broken down truck, which acts as a transitional piece both physically and emotionally, is from a cow pasture from my childhood; my childhood friends (Johnny and Eric) and I played around this for years… and Eric did indeed take the hood ornament for a trophy one summer. As I thought about all of this and the notes I had, a short story popped into my mind, tying it all neatly together (though I had to kill my buddies to make it make sense). I have several thoughts and intentions woven throughout this piece: commentary on immaturity/maturity, superstition/technology, childhood/adulthood, and the clash between innocence, frivolity, and responsibility. I’m curious if any of you see this…